What Ireland’s Yes campaign can teach us about inclusion in business

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Written By: Sandra Ondraschek-Norris  16/06/15

The momentous referendum result showed how positive leadership and open dialogue can combat bias, says Sandra Ondraschek-Norris.

At a recent event in Paris, I introduced myself by saying, among other things, that I was Irish. The topic of our discussion was unconscious bias; the hosting company was a drinks manufacturer and as Ireland had already been mentioned in the context of alcohol, I thought it best to get the stereotypes out of the way. What biases do you have about the Irish? I asked. The answers were predictable: fun, friendly, red hair, Catholic. Everyone laughed and nodded in agreement.

It is because of this background that the recent referendum results are so momentous. In what has been referred to as “a national act of inclusion”, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

At Catalyst we know inclusion matters. We’ve researched it. We teach it. We support organisations across the globe that want to embed it in their culture and leadership behaviours. So when an entire country takes a vote on it, I think we need to pay attention.

Here is my personal take on why the Yes side won by a clearer majority than was anticipated and what we can learn for our own work on inclusion in organisations.

Allies and advocates played a crucial role

This was a vote about same-sex marriage. Gay people across the country came out, bared their souls, told their personal stories and were frequently subjected to vile abuse in the process. At the same time, LGBT allies stood beside them, walked with them, and advocated on their behalf. Siblings, parents, friends and communities rallied, countered dogma with dialogue, canvassed tirelessly and demonstrated a commitment to compassion and fairness that was unprecedented and deeply moving. What works in society can also work in business. If we want to support diversity and inclusion, regardless of the “minority” we are dealing with, allies and advocates are essential to bringing about lasting change.

Storytelling was the central element

Voters in Ireland were not told “this is why you have to vote Yes”. Instead, they heard: “this is my story, this is why I care, this is why I will be voting Yes”.

This was a campaign about real lives and real relationships, and it was a striking demonstration of the power of personal stories to move, engage, and inspire. If we want people to see the value of diversity and inclusion and to become more inclusive in their behaviours, storytelling is a craft that must be cultivated. It’s something that we all do naturally, so let’s take advantage of that and give this skill the attention it deserves.

Positivity mattered

The Yes campaign wove a richly embroidered, rainbow-coloured tapestry of what makes life worth living. On the No side there was a little grey, threadbare flag of fear and loathing. In her book Positivity, renowned researcher Barbara L Fredrickson explores the 10 most common forms of positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. The Yes campaigners ticked all of these boxes and more. Fredrickson also provides compelling evidence that positivity literally broadens the mind and helps combat bias.

Organisational health also relies on positivity. If diversity and inclusion are framed around positive leadership behaviours and aligned with core values, there will be more hope of full inclusion.

Leaders got a reality check

After the Irish results became clear, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin commented that the church needed a “reality check” and to “reconnect with young people to regain its traditional cultural standing and moral authority” in the country. It remains to be seen whether this will ever be regained.

The world has moved on. Church leaders and business leaders across the globe are struggling to keep up. People expect different things from the workplace and the “command and control” form of leadership is increasingly challenged.Catalyst research shows that humility is key to fostering inclusion and it’s still in short supply in many corporations.

From bias to inclusion

Bias has many forms and nuances. Expressed in an extreme form it is saying “you’re different from me, so you do not have the rights that I have”. In the business world, there are often more subtle forms that play out along the lines of “you are different from me, so I am blind to your skills and talents”.

Inclusion is about learning to value those who are different from us. It doesn’t just happen, it needs to be facilitated through courageous conversations, open dialogue and personal stories.

Inclusion can be learned, and whether you’re changing a country or a corporation, it happens one conversation at a time. Ireland has given the world a great example of what is possible.

Source: The Guardian



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